It's the first week of July, 2009. My husband packs up his pick-up for a camping trip with our three children: almost-sixteen, almost-seven, and almost-three. I feel a little guilty; I know almost-three is not going to make it for 2.5 days of campfire and tent-life--even though it is a mighty fine tent. A six-sleeper. Still. Did I mention almost-three is a boy? Did I mention that he's almost three?!? Still, I let them go. Hey, if my husband wants to try it, who am I to stop him? I'm thinking: this could be the start of a beautiful tradition. Three days to myself, in my own house, once a year.
They will probably be back before the sun even sets.
The second they're out the door, though, I'm popping open a can of yellow paint. My plan: give the kitchen its first coat, make my hair appointment, paint the living room and hallway in the evening, watch some TV all by myself (a rare treat!), and get up early the next morning to begin working on a new novel. The last several months, struggling through to the end of a novel I've been piecing together for years, I've been absolutely desperate for this moment, or one just like it. I've finished the book.
I keep the radio on, top forty, not because I love the music, but because it makes me feel connected to the outside world. Funny, isn't it? All I ever want is some time to myself and I get it and then find the quiet completely unnerving.
There's news on the radio. Michael Jackson has passed away a few weeks earlier, and now, there is speculation over the true paternity of two of his three children. Maybe it was the dermatologist? The white dermatologist? Also, Mark Sanford is trying to fall back in love with his wife.
Fast forward a few hours. I've missed my hair appointment, my kitchen is not yet half-painted, me crawling behind the refrigerator, paint roller in hand, balancing a tray of paint in my lap. This is taking so much longer than I thought it would. It's hot. They keep repeating the same news on the radio: Michael Jackson is still dead. Once upon a time, my fourth-grade class did aerobics to "Thriller" in the cafeteria. No telling who fathered those children, and why he chose Debbie Rowe, anyhow. Tootie, on The Facts of Life, once claimed she needed eight hours of sleep, nine if she's dreaming about Michael Jackson. Sanford is still trying to fall back in love with his wife. Life is like that. Spouses, unlike Argentine soul mates, can be hard to love. Michael Jackson was fifty when he died; I'm thirty-five. He was fifteen years old, somewhere, already famous, already damaged (probably), when I was born.
The report from camp is not good. Almost-three is throwing rocks at almost-seven and almost-sixteen. My husband sounds discouraged on the phone. Really discouraged. Like he's trying to fall back in love with someone. Or like, these kids? They could be anyone's kids, right? This could be anyone's house I'm painting. Hours pass.
By one a.m., I've finished one coat in the kitchen, started the living room, hated the color, but kept on painting because, by now, I can't stop. I've turned off the radio, but now the TV's on and Reese Witherspoon is going to law school. But then, I do stop. Behind the television, I just drop the roller into its pan. That's it. I'm thirty-five. The fumes from the paint and the chocolate-chip cookie I ate for lunch-dinner combined have made me nauseous and weak. I cover the paint trays in Saran Wrap, stumble upstairs, take a shower, and go to bed with my hair wet.
Of course, there's no writing in the morning. I'll start a new book, but it won't happen today. What I do do is wake up at five, start some coffee, peel back the Saran wrap.
What's happened to me? Sure, I am exhausted. Much older than the last time I attempted a marathon painting-weekend, back when we first moved into the house, at twenty-six. Which is also, by coincidence, about the same time I started the writing. And, mean the writing. The habitual writing, what I do now. Thirty-five. My book is finished. I haven't married Michael Jackson, or even thought much about him in more than twenty years.
This is a new day, and the world has already moved on to new stories. My dad, that familiar knight in shining armor, shows up at eight with his own paint brush and a cup of coffee from McDonalds. He takes one look at me, says, you need to rest a little. Okay. But first, I tell him a few bits of Michael Jackson trivia. Remember, I've been up all night. Breathing paint. Eating nothing but a single cookie. My dad, good guy, shrugs--what does he care about Michael Jackson? But then admits: The guy could really dance, couldn't he?
Still drunk on exhaustion, a dehydration-headache thumping against the inside of my skull, I make my own confession: I finished my book. There, that's it. That's what's wrong with me. Worse than the trembly-weakness and the odd delayed grieving for a man who was, at least to me on that day, more of a tragedy than a celebrity, that's it. I finished my book.
Now, I'm going to have to clear my head. Begin that hideous quest: I need to find an agent. Or try. Take a nap. Put my family back together when they return from the woods. Push the furniture back in place.
But there's more. What's harder than any of this, the thing I have before me. I have to go back, to a different time, start fresh and yet also weary, oh, so weary. The writing, this book, has made me better--that's what habitual writing does. It makes you better. But, it also inflects its wounds. Makes the task in front of me one I've conquered before, and yet, still, I'm timid, newly terrified. What I have to do is let the paint dry, eat a decent meal, take a deep breath, and try to fall in love again.